Pintails, potholes, and people

When I was about 12 or 13, I started getting an interest in birds. I remember that age being a kind of confusing, tough, lonely period for a bookish kid like me, and I used to spend time in the evening after supper sitting on the front step of our house, looking up and just thinking about things.

We lived not far from the local reservoir in Calgary, and in summer I could watch the ring-billed gulls lazily winging their way back to the lake for the night. I found it calming.

But things got really interesting in spring and fall, when lines of ducks and geese would migrate overhead. I will never forget the impression they made on me: the idea that these birds from who-knows-where chose to fly right over my little green house in the suburbs. I remember walking out the front door, leaving behind the TV and comic books and homework and family chatter, and suddenly glancing upward and feeling connected to something so much greater than myself—something unimaginably ancient, graceful, beautiful, primeval.

Migrating birds still spark that feeling in me.

mail pintail duck in silhouette
That blue bill, that long neck.

One handsome duck

Northern pintails were one of the first birds I learned to identify in those days. They were relatively common then, and that pointy tail and powerful, direct flight were dead giveaways as they zoomed overhead.

Pintails are still a favourite bird of mine: they’re just so beautiful. They’re a classic duck of the prairie pothole region, that great network of sloughs (pronounce it sloos, please, the way we prairie folk do) that dot Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the northern prairie states.

Now that I live on the west coast, we have a few that spend the winter each year, though the majority head south to California. They’re not what you’d call rare, but they’re not doing terribly well, either. And that’s a bit of a worry.

Tough time for pintails

closeup mail pintail duck
On their winter territories they can get quite tame.

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, hunting was not well controlled, and ducks and geese plummeted in numbers. By the 1980s, as hunting became better regulated, a massive drought hit the prairies, and waterfowl suffered further. It didn’t look good for them.

But things changed. Hunters became waterfowl’s salvation. Stewardship groups like Ducks Unlimited invested time and money in conserving wetlands, commissioning research, and educating young hunters. Hunters are now among our greatest conservation champions.

male pintail on the water
That impressive tail.

And the drought ended, mercifully. Since it did, most of the prairie waterfowl have recovered beautifully. But pintails have not. Why?

It may have to do with their nesting habits, and the habits of Canadian farmers. Under tremendous pressure to produce more every year, farmers are cultivating ever closer to the edge of wetlands, and they still drain small ponds (though this is getting better with education.) The time-honoured practice of summer fallowing has become rare, and pintails nest readily in summer fallow—more than other ducks.

Picky birds

pair of pintail ducks
Pintail pair

Pintails are among the earliest nesters of all the ducks, and they don’t waste any time. When they arrive on the prairies, they assess the nesting potential of their sloughs and if it doesn’t look good, they just keep flying. They head much further north, often to the Yukon River delta in Alaska, where their nesting success is poor, if they try to nest at all.

At the end of the season, they use their powerful flying skills (they can hit 100 km/hour, believe it or not, though 60 is more typical) to head to California and other southern points. There, they’re reliant on inland wetlands, many of which are in private hands. Then, as spring approaches, they head to staging areas—places where thousands and thousands of waterfowl gather to fatten up—in northern California and Oregon before fanning out across the prairies and northern lakes once again.

female pintail duck
Pintail mama

Water stewardship in the western USA, of course, is a huge issue. Waterways there are chronically ‘oversubscribed’; there’s more people depending on the water for household and agricultural use than those waterways can sustain. Climate change is making everything worse.

Don’t despair.

The good news in all of this is that there are still millions of pintails in the skies. They’re not uniquely North American, either—there are pintails in Germany, Finland, Siberia, pretty much all over the northern hemisphere. We still have time to ensure their survival for generations to come, and many researchers are working on the problem.

For now, their recovery has stubbornly stalled, and the solutions appear to be fairly complex. Over the course of their annual cycle of migrating, nesting, wintering, and staging, they cross multiple ecosystems. They cross state and provincial boundaries; they cross an international border.

mail pintail duck
The detail in the feathers.

Pintails remind us that water stewardship is greater than any one jurisdiction. They live at the intersection of two of the great, ancient forces I felt at the age of 12: animal migration and the planetary water cycle.

It’s easy to point fingers at any one element within those global forces: it’s the almond farmers in California using too much water; it’s the prairie farmers; it’s the hunters, and so on. But it’s all of us—we all have a stake in the future of our planet’s water and water-based ecosystems. We all need it; we all use it (and I, like so many of us, sometimes use too much.)

What can you do to help? Pay attention to how your governments (local, regional, national) make decisions about water. Pay attention to how you take care of the water you use.

male pintail
That silhouette.

But take time, too, to pay attention to the beauty of the birds. It’s easy to despair; it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the weight of the world and its ecological problems. Sometimes simply witnessing the movement of wild things is all you need to find the inspiration to carry on; sometimes it’s worth sitting back and just celebrating the fact that these remarkable animals still live among us.

Spring migration is starting soon. Take time to look to the skies, and find comfort in the ancient, beautiful rhythms of the birds.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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4 thoughts on “Pintails, potholes, and people”

  1. Very informative and revealing. Sadly, everything has to struggle so hard, just to get out of our way. Thank goodness we are more aware now, which gives hope. Really pleased to learn about hunters as conservation champions. That sounds like an oximoron but I’ll take it ! These birds are so incredibly beautiful and stoic.
    Thanks for a great article.


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